Has COVID Accelerated Supply Chain Technology? 

“Companies of all sizes are leaning on automation to keep factories running without compromising the health and safety of their workers,” states a Reuters article from July. One executive is quoted saying it’s costing companies more to operate without robots during COVID. 

A lot has changed in 2020 due to the pandemic. Everyone’s habits have shifted dramatically, putting entire industries in jeopardy while others are booming bigger than ever imagined. Staying at home has increased the frequency of online shopping, and consumers report they’ll likely stick to shopping online after the pandemic has slowed down. Remote working and learning has been a boon for streaming sites and sweatpants sales. But what about the companies behind the scenes? The ones making sure the jumbo pack of toilet paper or any of the other always-sold-out items during the pandemic, get to your doorstep in a day, or less. 

“We’ve seen the range of items that are being fulfilled via ecommerce grow tremendously, which has been a unique opportunity to pick and ship items with increasing unusual challenges like odd form factors. Who’d have thought people would buy fire pits over the web! Any technologies that help prevent or mitigate the need for operators to work in close proximity are now a strong part of our customers’ cost/benefit analysis.”

Bob Miller StreamTech Engineering

The logistics industry has mostly risen to the occasion to adequately meet this swell of sales.  What makes it possible to scale quickly, at a moment’s notice is technology that enables automation and greater efficiency. Technology has played a large role in the growth of the logistics industry in the last decade, and COVID has fast-tracked the development of many new technologies this year alone. 

The tools and ideas listed below are not new, but in this pandemic environment, the shifting needs of companies and consumers has accelerated their need dramatically. 

Real-Time Data: Remote Everything Increases the Need for Accuracy 

With less business happening in-person during COVID, plus the surge of order volume across all industries, the reliance on accurate information in logistics has become paramount. 

Tools and technology that deliver better location tracking, especially for trucks and freight shipments, now have gotten more accurate, cheaper, and more widely used. This year specifically there has been an increase in startups working on IoT sensor technology for logistics (FedEx announced a big push for this in September). Most often used for asset tracking by placing sensors within large shipments, trucks, and freight containers, sensor technology can help with fleet management and real-time parcel tracking.

Uber Freight, a big player in truckload brokerage, has worked extra hard this year on making load visibility more transparent. Finding and booking freight is often the most time consuming aspect of freight management, and it requires a lot of administrative effort. Uber Freight hopes to change that by using geolocation data to source and match freight loads with drivers. The company’s $500M capital raise this Fall, is a sign that the need for faster, more accurate information this year has pushed them to improve and expand their technology. 

Warehouses also rely heavily on real-time data to keep their inventory levels accurate. Warehouse management systems (WMS) is the core platform that powers most warehouses and fulfillment centers and the technology that powers them is improving every year. Some experts say that AI will be the next wave of technology to improve inventory management. Can you imagine a system that can accurately forecast orders, evaluate inventory levels, and automatically send out purchase orders to replenish stock? There are a number of companies leveraging AI to make this a reality.

Automation: Higher Volume Means Maximum Efficiency 

Needs have changed globally and product demand is so high. Our 2020 Q3 order volume at DCL is up 148% compared with Q3 of 2019. Despite bottlenecks along the supply chain (manufacturer shut downs, freight delays, or carrier issues), 3PLs and fulfillment companies are working overtime to get products to people in an efficient and accurate manner. Automation has been inseparable from their ability to get the job done. You can’t go a day in the logistics field without hearing about automation these days. In general, automation increases accuracy (by limiting human error), and allows a higher throughput of volume. 

“COVID-19 has driven consumer behavior toward unprecedented spikes in e-commerce fulfillment as well as in-store pickup. Efficient pack and ship operations have to support every category of goods—one major way we’re helping automate that efficiency is through 3D imaging technology that performs item counting, damage detection, and cube utilization.” 

Aanand Esterberg VP of Business Development at ThruWave

Many fulfillment centers have increased conveyor technology to help move inventory and boxes along through the warehouse faster, increasing order accuracy, and decreasing the reliance on worker interventions. During COVID this allows warehouse workers to be able to keep safe social distance from each other, and it reduces foot traffic throughout the facility. 3PLs have also employed carton calculator technology to optimize the shipping materials and DIM weight, which minimizes human error and maximizes low cost packaging. 

Autonomous driving technology is an area of automation technology that has accelerated this year. Early in the pandemic shutdown, all carriers experienced delivery delays averaging one or two days. Who knows if autonomous vehicles would have helped that out, but it’s interesting to think about. 

While the technology of autonomous vehicles is definitely not new (robot vacuum cleaners have been bumping around homes for years now) this year autonomous cars have been tested out on the road more 2020. Tesla’s personal vehicle, Autopilot is supposed to be ready for consumers “soon.” 

What this means for logistics is autonomous freight vehicles are sure to be developed hot on the heels of autonomous cars. Amazon is the biggest player with a clear stake in the race to get usable products on the road for their delivery infrastructure. Other carriers and private companies are sure to follow. 

Robotics: The Landscape of Commercial Spaces is Changing 

Possibly the most industrial technology that has seen a big boost in 2020 is robotics—robotic arms used to pick inventory in warehouses have seen a huge increase this year, with more to come in 2021. 

Having non-human helpers move products around has created vast improvements to warehouses, especially at a time when human contact needs to be limited due to COVID. Robots have more capacity to work faster, longer, and with more consistent effort than human force. Companies investing in robots now will absolutely use the technology after COVID settles down, largely because it’s a large financial and operational expense to implement. 

A specific type of robots called cobots are widely used in warehouses because they can safely work in tandem with human operators. 

“A common application for cobots in warehouse operations, particularly fulfillment centers, is to facilitate social distancing. Because cobots can be deployed side by side with skilled human operators, savvy companies are implementing cobots for simple handling tasks, and allowing their skilled operators to continue to deliver the more demanding processes.” 

Joe Campbell Senior Manager of Applications Development at Universal Robots

In October Walmart announced four of it’s stores will shift to a hybrid model of partial in-store purchasing and partial ecommerce fulfillment center. There is more to be determined what exactly the experience will look like, but this is the first public model of its kind. 

Experts say that commercial real estate may take a big dive, with so many brick-and-mortar stores closing. Although it could be tempered by big box stores needing the physical space to set up fulfillment centers closer to their end-customers. With fulfillment centers on the rise (Amazon is trying to catch up to the footprint other big box stores have) it’s only natural that many of them will include robots to fully optimize these spaces. 

FedEx has many of the above technologies already in use, or in significant testing. The carrier announced a greater reliance on robots to help them ensure the holiday surge is as smooth as possible.  

 

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